It’s an intriguing dichotomy in “blood” to realize the limitations of a camera when seeing the extraordinary scenes that Bradley Rust Gray captures in his beguiling fourth feature, trailing Chloe (Carla Juri), a photographer who has used hers as a passport to the world. Taking on projects that act as entrée into other people’s lives by documenting the craft that goes into their work, she need not defend her curiosity and take reap the benefits of being a quiet observer, letting her imagination run wild as she exhibits patience and respect for her subjects when taking their picture. The moment this all flipped on Chloe happens before the events of “Blood,” but her ideal profession has become a bit of a trap, still able to find refuge behind the camera, but the device now serving more to put distance between herself and the world that looks different in the wake of her husband Peter’s death.
Staying with her friend Toshi (Takashi Ueno) and his young daughter Futaba (Futaba Okazaki) in Japan, Chloe isn’t fluent in the local parlance, but wouldn’t quite know how to connect even if she did, unprepared for when memories of Peter will come flooding back in her mind. Still, she dutifully goes about her practice when it’s all she knows, finding joy where she can in watching soba noodles being made and taking dance lessons. Gray has a way of taking such circumstances and making them light, not in the sense that they lose any of their weight for his characters, but that they are not obstacles but a part of a fluid experience and as he tackles grief through the eyes of Chloe, who doesn’t flinch at filming by active volcanoes or eating freshly made wasabi yet can suddenly be blindsided by the most benign of reminders from her past, the writer/director is able to explore how anguish over losing a loved one can live side-by-side with starting anew.
To tell the story of someone who feels as if she’s living in two different worlds simultaneously with both the intimacy and enormity that entailed, Gray convened a scrappy production with a small crew that operated out of two vans scouring Japan and Iceland, where Chloe’s memories of Peter reside, for people and places to build a story around. While his original intention to forge a group-up collaboration with an actress as he did with Zoe Kazan on “The Exploding Girl” didn’t come to pass, he found a kindred spirit in Juri, the adventurous Swiss actress who broke out internationally in the outrageous comedy “Wetlands” and hasn’t shrunk from a challenge ever since. “blood” was no doubt daunting when there were no assurances of what the day would bring and neither her nor Gray were working with collaborators who necessarily spoke the same language, but the result is graceful and inspiring, with the excitement of the filmmakers forging connections they couldn’t expect underlining the unpredictable ways Chloe begins to be brought back to the life in front of her.
Shortly before the film’s premiere at Sundance, an event a decade in the making, Gray graciously took the time to talk about the surprises that enlivened the filming of “blood,” how he used the story to process his own feelings of loss and sneaking in scenes of a volcano that not even Roland Emmerich could afford in one of his films.
It was interesting to read in the press notes that this began as a pretty intense collaboration with an actress as “The Exploding Girl” was with Zoe Kazan, but knowing this has been in the works for some time, was it much of a decision to carry on with someone else when that person wasn’t available?
No, it worked out. I can tell you who it is. It was with Michelle Williams and she’s good friends with Zoe. I had asked her if she would be interested in doing a part in “Jack and Diane,” my last film, and she was doing Marilyn Monroe at the time so she couldn’t do it. But then we talked about doing something together like I had done with Zoe and she knew that process because she knew Zoe so well. It took me a long time to write the script because she’s such a transformative actress and after a while I thought, what we shared in common was the sense of loss, [which] she was going through that at that time of her life. But when it got closer, it was a little too close, and it was actually okay because it opened the film then to be a little bit more universal. It would’ve been really interesting to do a film with her about that, but, in a way, she was like a bridge. Walter Murch talks about this [where] sometimes this scene of the movie is my favorite scene,” and then he’s like, “No, that scene got you to the movie.” And in a way I think I wouldn’t have developed this story [without her].
In a way, it is about my loss. If you know my wife So Yong [Kim]’s work, she’s really good, like “Here’s my personal story.” I’m not good at that. So all my characters are female. It adds a layer of distance and that helps me see the world from a different point of view, but they are very personal about different moments in my life as well. So this was a way for me to write about that, and I wouldn’t have come across had I not started working on it with Michelle and then, by working on it with Carla. Actually, Carla’s attachment to the script was my personal story with my parents and her sense of understanding the loss was through talking with me about that, o it was a really nice journey overall to be able to work on the film through those changes and then finding where it should go.
What was it like bringing Carla into this?
It was great. There were moments where we didn’t have anybody attached to it. We were rewriting the script and adjusting things and sometimes I might write with somebody in mind just to put a face and a flavor to things. But when you have somebody, then everything starts to come to life and when Carla came on, it was really quick to see the differences between the character and her. She can do anything, but I really like bringing out the personality of somebody and when she laughs, it’s insane. It’s like her head cracks open, so you want to capture that. Her sense of humor’s like very different than my sense of humor but her ability to tap into that…she’s unpredictable in a wonderful way. And we just had this trust. It was just a really wonderful in sync thing where every decision we were totally on board with and it was really great.
It’s particularly wonderful that she’s a photographer so it leads her to visit all these places in Japan and observe. Were you actually doing this reconnaissance beforehand?
Oh, yeah. So Yong and I lived in Japan for like a year in the year 2000 so I had been there before and I wrote the first version of the script with a lot of that feeling in mind. Things have changed in the world and in Tokyo, but I was really fortunate because we had good friends there, so when we were getting closer to shoot, I did get to go out to Japan and do a research trip and reconnect with my friends. We have friends that are photographers, so I liked some of the details of their personalities and the way they see the world. Then selfishly, I wanted to do something with food — I think so many filmmakers make films about food because they get to go and do their research, so I went to Japan and I was like, “Can you introduce me to interesting people?” It’s not about food. It’s about the people doing it and one guy introduced me to the guy that does the wasabi rice and he’s just such a particular guy. Then Ueno [Takashi] introduced me to this guy that I end up calling “the Godfather” because he owns like 10 restaurants in the part of town we shot in. He was like, “Where do you want to go?” And we just went to all of the restaurants. The soba chef works for him and the restaurant [the characters in the film] eat at is part of it. The party that they have outside where they’re eating and talking to friends, that was something he threw for the film.
A lot of it is Ueno because when I got to Japan, after that first research trip, I was always trying to peel away the things that [would] exploit the country or [would seem] corny, so I had friends that were like, “Don’t do that and don’t do this, that’s too over the top,” and then they would help navigate what real life was like and I like this idea of using a non-actor like Ueno who is very close to who he is in real life and you’re wearing your clothes, we’re shooting in your house, we’re shooting with your friends. He just introduced me to all his friends and then you just get all of this life. Some of it was accidental. He had scheduled concerts that he had to do and he was going to record an album with a friend during our shoot. And I was like, “You can’t. I need you 12 hours a day, six days a week [to film].” Then I stepped back and thought about it and actually that’s a wonderful gift. I’m like, “Could we film it?”
A lot of the sequences in the film happened also just because that’s what [Ueno] was doing at the time. They go out to the countryside, he’s recording an album, they’re really doing that. And those are great because the film is about her living in Japan with a friend that she knows nearby, so it’s so much more exciting to have him do actual things that he would be doing with people that he would be doing them with and you get all these faces and all this flavor. That’s the type of film that we were all looking to make, so it worked out.
How much were you thinking about the edit during the shoot? The way memories of her past life in Iceland intrudes into her experience in Japan is really interesting.
Some sequences in the script were written with these sort of dream sequences in mind. In the script, there was more of this twisting thing where you’d lose your grounding and there’s maybe a moment where you wonder if the Japan part’s not real and she’s actually in Iceland remembering a different part of her life. In the script, it did that a lot and it starts to get really twisted around, but once we shot the film and you see all of the authenticity and the reality of where she is and you’re with her, it didn’t seem necessarily to do it as much. But there is, I think, a small moment in the film where you still have this. I think it’s like this in life, if you want to climb up halfway a mountain and get a view, you just tell yourself I’m going to go all the way and then it’s much easier to get halfway if you’re shooting for the top. Even if it’s rocks and crags, you may have gotten further than you actually intentionally wanted to get, so the script helped push things in a certain direction and then we had that choice in the edit room.
As you might guess, we shot a lot more than is in the movie. There’s I think 135 scenes in the script. That’s too many for a feature already. And then we shot these sequence of scenes called “200s” which were just extra, “Oh, we got extra time, let’s shoot something.” We had 80 of those and it was like making a documentary. You just had material and, ideally, they’re not time based. They’re not based on her hair is changing or somebody’s grown a beard. You can move things around so that in the edit you could create this emotional journey based on some spontaneous things and some scripted things that happened.
You got the perfect mix. It was surprising to read the Iceland shoot was actually compelled by COVID not being as much a factor there, but did you know you’d get the benefit of a live volcano?
I had heard there was a volcano going off. We had lived in Iceland too – that’s the other reason we went there because I needed a place to stay – and my friends [there] had mentioned it. As soon as I got there, the line producer’s like, “You got to come see the volcano. You got to put it in the movie.” I’m like, “I don’t have a volcano scene. What do you mean?” But we got in the car and drove out there and it looks fake when you see it, because it looks like it’s in slow motion. You’ve never seen anything like it. And it’s like, “Well, yeah, we have to put this in the movie.” But just using the same approach as when Ueno had a band practice, it’s like, “Well, we’ll just use the reality of that moment.” The reality of standing in front of the volcano is you’re there with a bunch of other tourists and a lot of them are Icelandic, which is very rare because they don’t go out in the landscape and check it out because they live there, but this was different. This was like 11 o’clock at night, and it was playing on TV. It was the only thing everybody talked about all over the country because it was relatively close and it had just erupted. It was a really unique volcano because it could go for 300 years. They didn’t know how long it was going to go. We really lucked out with the shot. The team was really good and we got this amazing moment with it.
The other scene that really stood out to me was the scene on the boat – for starters, it seems like a consistent theme in your work to have transportation of some kind where the world is moving around the characters while they’re still, but you also enlist the great Issey Ogata to host Chloe on that journey. What was it like pulling that scene off?
You’re giving me way too much credit, but I’ll take it. We were coming up for locations and places for [Chloe] to visit and the line producer was also looking for people for her to interview. I said I want someplace loud because the film’s very quiet and I was thinking [of something like] the fish market in Tokyo, [which] used to be boisterous and everyone’s like, “It’s not like it used to be. It’s not a cacophony,” so I was like, “Well, can you find something loud that’s kind of in that vein?” A couple of days later, [the line producer] comes up and he’s like, “Okay, I got your boat.” And we’re all like, “What boat? We don’t have a boat.” And he was like, “Well, boats are really loud.” We didn’t even know about this at all, but he explained the situation with this boat and the canals in Tokyo, so we were like, “Okay, we’ll make a scene out of that.” We got there and it set up this moment where they could talk in a way [where] yeah, the world is moving around them and they have a moment.
Maybe subliminally, you’re onto something because I’ve been thinking about this — because I have kids, when you’re in a car, you can talk to your kids and other times you can’t because you’re stuck, right? And also you’re not making eye contact because you’re not allowed to because you’re in this moving thing, so it’s like you’re allowed to ask more intimate questions when you’re in a situation like that where you’re looking out together, where you’re witness of something together and you’re witness of the world moving by. You’re allowed to open up these intimate questions.
For [Chloe], that was a moment of her artistically reaching out because Peter, her husband, was always the person they would have these conversations with and [Ogata’s character Yatsuro] is filling that role for her of giving her advice. I just really love that scene because he doesn’t land the plane, but the intention and the generosity of what he’s giving her is so clear. It’s just one of those moments you capture it and you’re like, “Oh, that’s cinema.” Because you couldn’t write that in a book. It wouldn’t come across.
Did the film take on a life of its own in a way you could get really excited about?
Yeah, I really wanted to shoot in this way where there’s spontaneous things happening and the world is changing around them and they’re in a real location and people do something that you don’t expect. It’s the characters that really do that, so Futaba, the little girl, was just a gift because I wanted to get a non-actor [in that role], but you wouldn’t think that you would get somebody that wonderful and you just want to get her spirit. I called her “the little butterfly” because you have no idea what’s going to happen, which is the best thing you could possibly do because then we’re just ready to set up and get something and she might run off and then come back and it’s just awesome. She was just in a sense of play and she really got along with Ueno Takashi [who plays her father Toshi].
Then the grandmother [of Toshi], we just found by the side of the road one day and she really gave so much of herself to the movie too. I had this scene where they’re just supposed to sit together quietly and then she says [something] and I didn’t know what she was saying until two months ago when I had it translated, but you could tell that it was really heartfelt. I didn’t know the layers of how deep it was that she was saying and she just started singing. Being elderly, I think she was at a stage where the sense of reality and things were a little bit off and she somehow in her mind, she really believed that Carla’s husband had passed away, but she felt this deep connection and, in some strange way, because we had met her before and met her again, I think she thought it was me. So even though I was right there 10 or 15 feet away, she would talk about, “Oh, I do remember your husband,” and she was talking about meeting me two weeks before. That’s what the moments were about. Because she was so generous to participate in the film, she just gave so much and those are the real gifts that brought the film to so much life.
“Blood” will screen virtually through the Sundance Film Festival on January 24th at 3 pm MT for a three-hour window and January 26th for a 48-hour window beginning at 8 am MT.